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Much of UMBC's furniture is purchased from the Maryland Correctional Enterprises. Photo from The Retriever Archives.

University System of Maryland: Stop buying into current prison labor system

While college students rightfully bemoan unpaid internships as a manipulative institution, at our university, the seats we sit on are made by prisoners being paid as little as 17 cents per hour. This is partially due to the loophole in the 13th Amendment, which permits slave labor as part of criminal punishment.

According to an inmate who wrote for The Guardian in 2018, “anybody convicted of a crime after 1865 could be leased out by the state to private corporations who would extract their labor for little or no pay.”

In an article The Retriever published in 2017, we wrote that University of Maryland, Baltimore County is state-mandated to buy its furniture from the Maryland prison system by the Code of Maryland article §14–103 (a.1.).

In January, The Baltimore Sun published the data behind how much prisoners are actually paid: “… for jobs within the correction division last year ranged from 90 cents a day to $2.75 a day, depending on skill level. Participants in [Maryland Correctional Enterprises], meanwhile, made between 17 cents an hour for an unskilled worker to $1.16 an hour for a warehouse team leader.”

The entirety of the University System of Maryland spent $10,034,713 on MCE furniture in 2018, making up 18.2% of their sales.

And yet, people in prisons earn $0.17- $1.16 per hour? The total sales of MCE from 2018 was $55,003,182. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, “Every U.S. state except Alaska features some sort of correctional enterprise, where inmates make goods like license plates and desk chairs. And in several states, public universities are required to buy from those entities.”

They continue on, citing USM directly: “The University System of Maryland and the State University of New York system are required to use their state’s correctional enterprise as a “preferred source” along with state industries that employ the blind.”

MCE states that a large part of their mission is “to teach strong work ethics, increased responsibility and self-esteem to create positive personal change.” That would mean a lot more if the compensation wasn’t so meager for the inmates who are being exploited. And USM has made it so that their universities rely on incarceration for their furniture.

And in 2018 in Maryland, The Baltimore Sun reported that more than 70% of Maryland’s prison population was Black. But Black people made up only 31% of Maryland’s total population when the article was published. The facts speak for themselves. 

The USM, which prides itself on having a mission statement that aims to improve the quality of life in Maryland, is paying literally millions of dollars a year to a corrupt system that benefits off of slave labor. 

Many argue that slavery was never abolished in the United States in the first place, only reformed. According to The Atlantic, “Section 1 of the Amendment provides: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’”

I don’t think I will ever feel fully comfortable sitting on furniture on campus. That’s how it should be. USM is complicit in this labor system. In the aftermath of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the USM schools have all put out statements offering sympathy and support to students. Yet our system, along with so many corporations including Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret benefit from prisons. 

Does that mean you’re a bad person for wearing PINK sweatpants and drinking a vanilla latte with your name spelled wrong? No, I’d argue it’s more about the corporation than about the individual. And it’s difficult to escape, even if you’re trying to boycott these companies. There are just so many. 

USM has a choice. Offering work to incarcerated people in order to offer them opportunities once they are released from prison is generally positive and providing optional work to those who want to do it makes sense. But exploiting them by paying them pennies a day while the minimum wage in the “outside” world is $10.10 is wrong. 

USM’s 18% of MCE sales is a powerful thing. Striking on purchases of prison labor is also powerful. This is a time of reflection. Our universities have power. Use it for good. Divest and put political pressure on Annapolis to raise the minimum wage for prisoners. Silence and inaction are complicities.